MongoDB CTO Mark Porter has been on all sides of the technology industry. He was most recently CTO of core technology and transport at Grab, a super-app serving Southeast Asia, and prior to that held leadership roles at Amazon Web Services and Oracle, among other places.
In this interview, he shares his views on the thawing relationship between software vendors and cloud providers, and why there’s still a big business in selling installed software. Porter also dives deep on his time at Grab, sharing insights into what it’s like building technology in a fast-growing market and leading a team distributed around the world.
Previously, you were at Oracle and then AWS working on relational databases. You’ve been involved in implementing database systems at consumer-facing companies. Now, you’re at MongoDB working on a non-relational, or NoSQL, system. So where are we now with the relational versus non-relational discussion?
MARK PORTER: I think relational is always going to be really useful. There’s no doubt about it. There’s a lot of data that does lend itself to a relational structure, but that doesn’t mean you have to use a SQL-based relational database. MongoDB handles relations, and other databases out there handle relations. I’m going to say something kind of controversial, which is that we view ourselves as a general-purpose database.
In terms of actual SQL databases, I’ll tell you a little anecdote. I was talking to this CTO about a year ago, and the CTO has 75,000 people reporting to them. And they said to me, “Mark, I have a real problem. No one coming out of school wants to learn my Oracle databases. No one coming out of school wants to learn SQL. And, in fact, the age of my relational database experts is going up close to a year per year. It’s an existential problem. I’m beginning to wonder if relational isn’t the new COBOL.” That’s his phrase, not mine. And it means that we’re still going to use it — there are more than 2 million people programming in COBOL every day out there — but it’s not where the leading edge of innovation is taking place. I really think that’s where relational is today, for a lot of reasons.
What about the cloud versus on-prem? Has that ship sailed? MongoDB is bringing in a lot of revenue from its cloud offerings …
No, it hasn’t sailed at all. The cloud is where the attention is — it’s elastic and people can spin stuff up easily — but there are so many customers who either need or want to continue running on-prem. And there are lots of different reasons: there are data center reasons, there are not-trusting-the-cloud reasons, there are they-compete-with-the-cloud-vendor reasons.
Our business is something like 40% on-premises and growing at a healthy pace. Now, our cloud business is bigger and growing faster, but our on-premises business is doing great. And, in fact, if it was a business in its own right, it would be a great business to be in. We don’t see that business going away any time soon and, in fact, we don’t see that business plateauing any time soon.
There are an awful lot of companies out there that aren’t tech companies. These are companies that use tech to accomplish their other business . . . Those companies may just need to stay on-prem for a while and transfer slowly and methodically up to the cloud as it makes sense for their business.
Does the company have a preference, for business reasons, as to where it prefers customers to run?
The reality is we think we can delight customers faster and better, and do the operability and the heavy-lifting for them better, in the cloud. That means we keep the system up with five-nines of availability across millions of clusters. We can offer them built-in search so they don’t have to stand up their own search cluster. We can offer them automatic sync with their Realm mobile applications. I can’t offer them those things on-premises.
So do we think that people can innovate faster in the cloud? Sure. But that in no way means that those people who are on-premises or even building hybrid clusters aren’t really important customers doing really important work, as well.
What’s the rationale for staying on-premises? Is it security? Control? Cost?
A lot of it is inertia, and there are two kinds of inertia that keep people on-premises. One kind is cultural inertia — they know how to do it, it’s there, they put money into their data centers, all those things. The other kind is technology inertia, where they built systems that work.
And, frankly, there are an awful lot of companies out there that aren’t tech companies. These are companies that use tech to accomplish their other business, like they’re a shipping company or they’re a food company, but they use tech. Those companies may just need to stay on-prem for a while and transfer slowly and methodically up to the cloud as it makes sense for their business. You and I live tech every day. To us, it is existentially obvious that people should make the investment and do the work to move to the cloud. For many companies, they’re focused on their core business, and tech is a side business for them.
The cloud providers are realizing that their job is to build the house, and that house has great electricity, it has great plumbing, it has great security. But you don’t want to hire the cloud providers to build your furniture.
There seems to be a frenemy relationship between cloud providers and software vendors. Is it easier to navigate or control that at a large software vendor, versus at a startup or smaller vendor?
That is changing significantly this year. That frenemy relationship is changing into a friends relationship.
What we’re seeing is this rise of third-party vendors like us, Confluent, and Snowflake, and all of us are producing best-of-breed software. The cloud providers are realizing that their job is to build the house, and that house has great electricity, it has great plumbing, it has great security. But you don’t want to hire the cloud providers to build your furniture. Your furniture is that beautiful sofa or that beautiful china cabinet, and we’re building that, Confluent’s building that, and other companies are building it. And the cloud providers are realizing this.
Why is this happening now? Is it a matter of resources, or of something else?
I don’t want to speak for my partners, with whom, from a commercial point of view, we have to make sure we have great relationships. They’re big companies. They’re in all of our accounts.
But I will say that you and I both know the actual currency of an executive team is its attention. And my attention is 100%, every day, on building the best application data platform on the planet. Amazon’s attention is on many, many things. Google’s attention is on many, many things. I don’t see the world changing in such a way that I can’t produce a better data platform than Amazon can.
Of course the cloud providers are going to have entrants in all these spaces, but they’re not going to be the best products in all these spaces, and I think that’s clear. Clay Christensen did a piece on when to go vertical and when to go horizontal, and it is absolutely clear that we are in a phase where a horizontal layering of best-of-breed products is now happening.
You and I both know the actual currency of an executive team is its attention. And my attention is 100% on building the best application data platform on the planet. Amazon’s attention is on many things. Google’s attention is on many things.
Should startups be a little more wary about these relationships than large, established vendors?
I think the cloud providers are realizing that they need to be customer-obsessed and they need to get over this frenemy relationship. But, yeah, if I was developing a piece of software, I probably would be very careful about my licensing. I’d be careful about what I did, because the last thing you want to do is fail when you succeed. The last thing you want to do is achieve success and all of a sudden have this big competitor come in.
I would advise people to stay developer-obsessed, work with the cloud providers, and give them the benefit of the doubt that they will be your friends — but be smart about the controls around your software to make sure you don’t get taken advantage of.
On building apps for, and managing teams in, Southeast Asia
Let’s talk about another company you’ve worked for — Grab — beginning with where it’s headquartered.
Grab was founded in Malaysia, quickly moved to Singapore, is currently headquartered in Singapore, and has offices in all nine major Southeast Asian countries. It has many offices in hundreds of cities, and then has R&D centers in nine different places — from Romania to Seattle — that reported to me. In theory, I was based in Seattle. Practically, I spent three out of four weeks a month in Singapore, and an awful lot of time on airplanes to come see my family on weekends.
What’s it like managing such a distributed team? Even if you were at headquarters a lot, it sounds like many of the engineers weren’t there.
The managing of the nine engineering teams that reported to me in that distributed fashion was never a problem, because the time zones were close enough. Seattle time was always a little bit far apart, but we were able to manage it. Running the engineering org in a distributed way was just fine.
The reason I was in Singapore was for the executives. Grab was a company where all of the executives were in Singapore, and you were expected to be awake on Singapore time making decisions on Singapore time. Grab, like many companies — and MongoDB is no different — has a very tight executive team who talk to each other all the time. I can’t even count how many times a day I talk to one of my other C-level peers, and that requires being in the same time zone.
We would sometimes launch new consumer services in two weeks from ideation to being up on the page. Just relentless experimentation and relentless analytics.
How have the pandemic and the associated shift to remote work changed that?
Our executive team is scattered across time zones, but I get up a little bit early. Some other people in other time zones get up a little bit late and work a little bit late. But I do think that executive teams need to have some number of hours of overlap during the day, because that’s when key deep decisions get made. You can get on a call and, in 15 minutes, accomplish something that would’ve taken 25 emails. You just make a decision in real-time.
So, there is no substitute for human interaction, but it doesn’t have to be in person. I’m not one of those people who thinks that we all have to go back into offices. We have a remote work model, we have a flexible remote work model, and we have an in-office work model, and we let people choose those work models. I think that all it takes is intentional relationship-building. I can build a great relationship with anyone over Zoom; it just takes doing it intentionally.
Of course, when I meet them for dinner or drinks or whatever once a year, that’s great, but that’s not essential to the relationship.
What’s unique about the Southeast Asian market compared with, say, the U.S. or China? Southeast Asia has a huge population and a broad diaspora, but seems relatively misunderstood, or maybe not understood.
I’ll give you my answer through the lens of Grab. The company’s stated mission is to improve the lives of 650 million Southeast Asians (probably more than that now). When I started at Grab, over 60% of people did not have any kind of digital footprint whatsoever. Ninety percent of them did not have a bank account; money was in cash. And what Grab did was bring a wallet.
The reason super-apps are taking off in places like Southeast Asia is because they bring the wallet with them, so you can bring your entire digital lifestyle with you. And so Grab does food, payments, banking and lending, and you can pay your utility bills. You can do all these things that you never used to be able to do, and it’s all built around this concept of a wallet that is on your cellphone. Everyone has cell phones, and so that’s the platform.
When I was at Grab, drivers would tell us they have jobs because of us, and they might be the only people in their families with steady jobs. So what Grab was accomplishing through that wallet, through that penetration, was magical.
I do think that executive teams need to have some number of hours of overlap during the day, because that’s when key deep decisions get made.
How is a “super-app” different from an engineering perspective?
As the CTO, it was actually quite interesting for me to move into the most aggressive B2C job I ever had. We had these teams that would go and move aggressively fast. We would sometimes launch new consumer services in two weeks from ideation to being up on the page. Just relentless experimentation and relentless analytics. We had over 600 analysts at Grab who did nothing but look at consumer analytics over tens of millions of people a day using the app.
Is there anything about the market itself — the people, the geography, the institutions — that make this type of app so valuable in that part of the world?
I’m not sure the technology’s any better, but the demographics are certainly different because Southeast Asia was such a quickly developing area with very little legacy infrastructure. Legacy infrastructure isn’t necessarily the problem, but legacy companies protecting the money they’re making off that legacy infrastructure is the problem. In the U.S., we have all these things going on where there’s all of these businesses — cab businesses, food businesses, et cetera. In Southeast Asia, there’s a lot less of that.
So with a company like Kudo, which was a company that Grab ran for grocery stores and grocery delivery, we were able to stand up something like 1,000 stores in a six-month period. And we were doing transactions within a month of having the first idea. That would be unheard of in the United States. People just move faster because there’s so much less infrastructure.
In addition, there’s also this concept that there are only two platforms. There’s iOS and Android. If you’re on those two platforms, you are officially everywhere, and that just helps so much for speed of delivery.
If you look in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, people are starting up these businesses very quickly and there’s no competition. . . . You can start up a startup in Indonesia in two weeks.
What does the technology industry look like across Southeast Asia? How does it vary from country to country?
One of the worst things we can do as westerners is we can say things like “the Southeast Asian market.” What I had to learn when I went there is I was actually addressing nine completely different countries. We ran our businesses differently in those nine countries. It was unbelievable to me.
When you think about the startup culture, Singapore has a culture where all these big multinationals have come in and they’re all competing for talent. In fact, it’s almost like a mini Silicon Valley, with all of the pros and cons of that — really great talent but, wow, a real shark fest of fighting for that talent.
If you look in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, people are starting up these businesses very quickly and there’s no competition. They’re putting up new apps on the internet and — I’ll be very direct — it’s almost this magnificent dream for a developer. You can start up a startup in Indonesia in two weeks. The talent, however, is harder to find. So the Indonesian government and the Malaysian government, as examples, are working with companies like Grab to educate people. Grab has programs to educate, if I remember correctly, something like 10,000 developers a month. It was our goal because we’re all there to bring the ecosystem up.
Is it fair to say that it’s easier to get up to speed as a developer in a situation like that, compared to the United States where you have lots of people who’ve been doing it for years at a very high level?
What we saw was that if you think about the three-tier architecture, mobile app development over there is magnificent. Backend-server app development over there is not as good as in the U.S. because they haven’t been doing it as long, but they’re coming up quick and learning fast. They also very naturally want to depend on managed services for the data layer, and the cloud in general, because they haven’t been doing it for decades. Whereas in the U.S. and Europe, I run into people all the time who want to write those second and third levels of the stack.
If you get the culture right, the technology is doable and even easy. If you don’t get the culture right, everything is hard — and I mean really hard.
As a region, Southeast Asia is pushing a billion people, but it seems like there isn’t a big focus on it as a sales market — even for APAC teams. Is this an accurate assessment?
A disclaimer that I’m not an economist. But I will tell you this: India and Southeast Asia are the sleeping beasts that are going to waken. There are so many people there moving so fast as their GDP goes up, despite recent issues that we’re all having. If you put India and the other countries together, you get about 2 billion people. That area is going to become a massive focus for the world over the long haul.
What are some things you learned at Grab, from an engineering or management perspective, that have stuck with you?
Everyone talks about top-down versus bottom-up, and things like OKRs, but that’s just a fancy way of doing top-down management. What I learned at Grab is while managers feel better about top-down management, there are still things that go well and things that go poorly. And if you think about bottom-up engineering empowerment, which is what we had at Grab and what we have at MongoDB, a different set of things go right, and a different set of things go wrong.
I’ll take the bottom-up empowerment every day, because the mistakes that go wrong there are easily fixable and you have this power of unbelievably fast-moving technology. Executives just can’t keep up with that; they’re always lagging by a year or two, so you really need them to meet in the middle. But you need to get the culture right. When I talk to companies, I talk about candor, context, empowerment, and psychological safety. That’s what builds a bottom-up empowered engineering organization.
If you get the culture right, the technology is doable and even easy. If you don’t get the culture right, everything is hard — and I mean really hard.
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